KAC Interviews
June 13, 2016

Klea McKenna

Photographer / Artist

San Fransisco, CA

When did you discover the photogram? Did you know immediately how it would shape your art practice? 

Like most photographers, I first encountered photograms in their simplest form, in a beginning photography class. In my case, I was a teenager and was charmed by early surrealist photograms. I went on to do “straight photography” for many years before circling back to photograms and developing my own methods. That change came about 9 years ago. It was driven largely by my own frustration, with both the work I was seeing and the work I was making. I was gasping for some color, some emotion, something risky, for a little of the magic that had first drawn me to the medium when I was a teenager, enchanted by the alchemy of the darkroom.  I wanted to be surprised by my own work, to transform what I see, rather than replicate it.  This desire led me into a period of rough experimentation with light-sensitive materials and methods that necessitated a loss of control over the finished image. The evidence produced by my experiments – while often unsuccessful – became a doorway for me or maybe a ladder, on which I could climb out of representational photography and enter a much more expansive visual world. Photograms have a strange ability to be simultaneously crude and elegant. A photogram is an imprint, a mark of an interaction between medium and subject, rather than a picture of something. I find great emotional resonance in that, so I never looked back.

Can you briefly describe your photographic process?

I use analog, light-sensitive materials (primarily color and B&W photo paper) and a variety of crude strategies: hand-made cameras, outdoor photograms, and methods of folding and layering film and paper to create sculptural images and photographic installations. This direct, experimental approach means paring down to the simplest ingredients, light and paper, and making images that often refer to the landscape only through elemental form and color. For example, Rain Studies are an ongoing series of black and white photograms made outdoors in the darkness of rainy nights. These works depict an aspect of landscape we feel, but do not see. We all know the sensation, both physical and emotional, of standing in the darkness in the pouring rain. My challenge is to make that sensation visible. They are made outdoors, at night, in places with minimal light pollution. I expose the photographic paper with hand-held light sources and utilize the angle of the rain, the paper, and the light to generate the different types of patterns. It took ages of working outdoors at night with these simple tools to find a way to capture the rain patterns just right. They are the result of trial and error, and a lot of curiosity and patience.

Your photographs are inspired by specific locations, how do you source those locations? Is it by chance or planned?  

Both. Larger, ongoing bodies of work have been prompted by landscapes I’ve lived in and have a charged personal relationship with, such as my family’s home on the Big Island. We lived there in the early 1980’s, “off-the-grid” and very close to nature, so the volatility of that particular landscape made a big impression on me as a young child and I had mulled it over for years before returning to make work there. But I am also interested in collective experience of landscape and instances where land has been altered or used in a way that leaves an impression, both psychological and physical. I’m currently working amongst military ruins on the coast of Northern California. They range from the late 1800’s to the cold war era. It’s eerie and wonderful to be out there on the cliffs at night, in total darkness with the coyotes and these crumbling buildings. In retrospect I sometimes think my ideas for artwork were actually prescriptions for experiences I needed to have.

Where do you go to find inspiration?

I go outside.  It’s funny because I’m not exactly outdoorsy, at least not in the athletic sense. I relate to nature more as a church than a playground. I see landscape as an animate and emotional force and this perspective isn’t an idea I toy with; it’s actually my own experience of the natural world. So I begin with close observation of the patterns, rhythms and drama of a place. Sometimes it’s on a grand scale and other times it’s bugs eating a dead tree.  I have always felt that landscapes are fraught with allegories of human drama and emotional experience and that’s what I’m trying to translate. The other places I go to get my ideas flowing are dance or music performances.  I used to be a dancer, and I haven’t done it in years, but to this day, if I sit in a dark theatre and gaze at an open stage, ideas float to the surface. The content of the performance is not relevant, in fact it helps if it’s a little boring, so my mind can drift and be open to whatever arrives.